Life is full of stories. Sometimes one small story gives a glimpse of a far larger one.
Last week I was in Prague to speak to executives at one of Europe’s largest lottery and online gaming groups. The industry is being buffeted by negative attitudes towards gambling, a ton of regulation and the shift online. And these people want to know what to do about it.
Every so often you show an example to an audience and get a visceral response. That happened this time: when I talked about how Chinese technology giant Tencent have started using camera-enabled facial recognition to restrict the amount of time that young people spend inside the multiplayer video game Honor of Kings.
Cue gasps, and then wry laughter. For those in the room this example was nothing more than a momentary glimpse of the world’s largest video game market.
But I’ve been obsessed with this move by Tencent for a while now. That’s because I think it’s a small but powerful signal of something far greater. I mean the challenge posed to liberal democracy— its societies, deepest values, everything — by the unprecedented techno-social experiment currently emerging in China.
First, some context.
Honor of Kings is the most popular video game on the planet. Over 200 million people play it every month. For many of these gamers, the addiction is real. Urban legend even has it that one player went blind because she couldn’t tear herself away.
In recent years the spectre of video game addiction has sparked a culture war inside China. For a while now authorities have been muttering about strict regulations, citing the capacity of video games to render Chinese youth corrupt, idle and even myopic. In August 2018 Tencent was forced to withdraw the game Monster Hunt: World from sale just days after release, and the government has restricted release of new games since then.
This facial recognition move is the latest evolution in that story. Under government pressure, Tencent first trialled the new system back in October. Now they’ve announced they’ll implement facial recognition-based age restrictions on all their games in 2019. Under 12s will be locked out after one hour per day; 13–18-year olds are allowed two hours. And here’s the crucial detail: the system is fuelled by the national citizen database held by China’s Ministry of Public Security. Yes, if you’re playing Honor of Kings in China now, you’re being watched via your webcam or phone camera and checked against a vast government database of headshots.
Which sounds extremely creepy. At least it almost certainly does if you’ve grown up in what I’ll call, for want of a better term, the liberal democratic west. Because it’s redolent of an underlying message that citizens in the west are primed to find disturbing. The government is watching you.
Of course, video gaming restrictions are just one tiny part of the unprecedented, tech-fuelled experiment in surveillance and social control that is currently emerging in China. At the heart of that experiment is the country’s nascent social credit rating system: a scheme that will see every Chinese adult assigned a numerical score to rate their worthiness as a citizen. That score will help determine everything from their ability to take out loans or catch a flight, to their access to doctors and educational opportunities. This emerging system, too, is being fuelled by facial recognition technologies that will allow the state to monitor citizens as never before. The government say they intend to have a compulsory, ubiquitous scheme in place by 2020. According to reports the system has already blocked citizens from taking 11.4 million flights and 4.2 million train journeys.
Now that is creepy.
In fact, it’s more than that. The new authoritarian technostate that China is building touches historic anxieties at the heart of the liberal western consciousness. Anxieties about total, unchecked state power. About tyranny. A society of total surveillance is abhorrent to us, because it runs counter to deeply held beliefs with their origin in the European Enlightenment. Beliefs about the proper relationship between the state and citizen — the collective and the individual.
Hence the nervous laughter in Prague. Government authorities spying on our children? It’s an Orwellian nightmare.
Why I am telling you all this?
By coincidence, around the time the news about Honor of Kings came out the New York Times published this piece on how Silicon Valley tech workers are deeply worried about the impacts of connective technologies on children.
Tech workers are not the only ones. Our culture is in the middle of a long, anxious moment about children and tech (and adults and tech for that matter). I could point to this widely-covered study showing that excessive screen time slows child development. Or this one about how multiplayer online game Fortnite is ‘as addictive as heroin’, and how desperate parents are sending their children to rehab. None of that is news to me (and maybe not you). I’ve heard direct from friends with teenage children who are deep down the Fortnite hole — headset strapped to face every waking hour outside school, barely taking breaks to eat. At first it’s a joke. Then it’s will you please come and have dinner with us? Then it’s do we need to find a child psychologist?
So, we’re appalled by the idea of state-backed facial recognition to meter child access to video games. At the same time, we’re ever-more concerned about the impacts of connective technologies on our children’s developing brains and life chances.
It’s not hard to see the tension there. We might instinctively recoil at the news about Honor of Kings. But it does represent a powerful way to solve a problem that we can’t stop talking about. If we continue to obsess over children and tech addiction, how long before some people start to see the Chinese solution in a different light? Especially if evidence mounts that (i) excessive screen time really is damaging to children and (ii) the Chinese solution really does work to limit that damage?
It’s easy to dismiss a socio-political system when it simply looks creepy. It’s less easy to do so when that system demonstrates that it can solve a problem that you authentically believe is ruining your child’s life chances (for the record, Fortnite almost certainly isn’t ruining your child’s life chances). Okay, it means trading away some privacy. But what if privacy starts to look less like a foundational value in this equation? What if other values — such as your child’s flourishing — start to trump it?
That’s the real, and counterintuitive, challenge posed by to liberal democracy by the authoritarian technostate currently taking shape in China. (Note that here and throughout I’m using the word ‘liberal’ in its original sense, as pertaining to the Enlightenment political philosophy of liberalism. I’m not using it in the narrower, more recent and US-centric sense of pertaining to left-leaning politics). The challenge is not that one day such a state might be imposed on citizens of the west against their will. But that this alternative system might genuinely promote human flourishing in ways that a liberal democratic system simply doesn’t. What if a society of total surveillance is, at least in certain important respects, a better society than ours?
The defining liberal idea is that only one type of society — one founded on individual freedoms, the consent of the governed, and property rights — can be justified by morality and reason.
In 1989 that idea seemed to have been proven true by history. Liberal values had won, and now it was just a case of waiting for the rest of the world to catch up. Embedded in that way of looking at human affairs was the idea that as other societies became more affluent, powerful and modern, they’d become more liberal, democratic and capitalist. Western citizens inhabited the Universal Civilization, and one day soon everyone else would be lucky enough to say the same.
That near-infinite liberal complacency— so memorably recorded in Francis Fukyama’s The End of History — has come under multiple assaults since then. Not least by the recent populist turn in the US and Europe. But the truth is that it’s still alive and well. A key part of that complacency is visible in the way we typically model the risks to a liberal democratic way of life. These are almost always characterised as the risk of ‘falling back’ (being careless with our values and so letting illiberalism sneak up on us) or the risk of subjugation (by a Big Brother who imposes illberalism on us against our will). You can see that narrative today in the way we talk about tech and privacy, which deploys both those tropes in a two-stage narrative: ‘we’re being careless with our right to privacy, and pretty soon the tech giants will be a new Big Brother we can’t escape’. What western liberal democrats have never had to countenance seriously is the idea that theirs are not the only values mandated by reason and morality; that they’re not the universal end point of history and the destination for all successful societies. In fact, they’re just some values among many others that are equally valid. And choosing between ultimate values is always case of trading some off against others.
The rise of the Chinese technostate is about to explode the west’s governing myth. It will do so in spectacular and highly visible style. Soon, the world’s richest, most powerful and most technologically advanced country will not be liberal or democratic. Inhabitants of the liberal west will face something entirely new: the spectacle of a civilisation founded on a very different package of values — but one that can legitimately claim to be more successful, and promote human flourishing more vigorously, than their own.
Of course the claim, ‘my society is better than yours’ must always make reference to value judgements, and that means it can always be contested. But once hundreds of millions of Chinese people are inarguably richer, better educated, more widely travelled, have better phones, shinier electric cars, faster internet, a cleaner environment, a more balanced family life than the average citizen of a liberal democracy? Once their society can solve complex problems that obsess our culture, such as a generation with an unhealthy relationship with their screens? That claim is going to become harder to contest.
I think I know what you’re thinking.
However affluent and successful the nascent Chinese technostate becomes, there’s a whole lot that is likely to remain deeply unattractive about it for most people. These attributes can be summed up by the observation that I help choose my government here in the UK, and am free to say what I like about it. Meanwhile, Chinese citizens who criticise Xi Jinping face possible arrest, imprisonment and torture. It’s estimated that China detains over 9,000 political prisoners. By pretty much any set of sane ultimate values, that’s a horror story.
But that observation strikes at my ultimate point. The kind of society you want depends in the end on value judgements. And value judgements are trade offs; you can have a bit more of one good if you tolerate having a bit less of another. Let’s go back to the two related values of individual liberty and privacy, both of which sit at the heart of liberal democracy. It’s hard, for obvious reasons, to get an accurate sense of what Chinese citizens really think about the amazing surveillance and control experiment unfolding around them. But some of the best independent data we have suggests that 80% of Chinese citizens approve of the social credit rating system. Who knows if that is true. But it’s entirely credible that within a culture that has traditionally valued stability and social cohesion above individual liberty, hundreds of millions of people feel that total surveillance is a net social good.
That’s simply a value judgement. There’s no ultimate calculus that can tell us whether it’s better to prioritize liberty or stability. And in the 21st-century, as inhabitants of the liberal west watch the ascent of the Chinese technostate, they are going to face ever-more pressing questions about the values they want to prioritize.
You might argue that we’re a long way right now from parents across the liberal west tolerating Honor of Kings-style surveillance in order to better manage screen time. True enough. I’m not saying people in liberal democracies are going to start clamouring to live in a China-like technostate; I’m not saying they’ll want to trade all their privacy to prise their children away from Fortnite. I am saying that the Chinese experiment is going to pose a fundamentally new kind of challenge to liberal democratic values — in a thousand small ways at first, and then almost certainly in some big ways that we can’t yet foresee. And we know that value trade offs can happen gradually and then all at once. Just look at the degree of privacy we’ve already given up to Big Tech. The standard liberal explanation is that in doing so we’ve been poor guardians of our rights: a sin of omission. The more frightening reality, the one that liberalism can’t countenance, is that we’re actively deciding (albeit unconsciously) that we hold other values — such as convenience, and distraction — above that of individual liberty. Inhabitants of liberal democracies might make further such choices in future. But they’ll need to be careful they don’t value-trade their way to a society none of them want.
Liberal democracy is not the Universal Civilization. It is instead simply a historically contingent, culturally localised legacy that its beneficiaries should regard as deeply precious. One that we erode at our own risk. Those of us who want to preserve that legacy are going to have to find new ways to defend it in a world that demonstrates every day that Enlightenment liberal values are not the only way to produce a successful society. Liberal values don’t always and necessarily make you the most affluent and technologically advanced. They don’t always make you the happiest, most balanced, most sustainable. They can’t solve all of the challenges posed by a new connective technologies. They are not uniquely mandated by human reason and morality, not the only route to human flourishing. Not the End of History.
But they’re what we’ve got. And though it’s going to becoming ever-harder to do so, we should remember that on the whole they’ve served us well. If we’re about to start trading aspects of that legacy away, we’d better do it mindfully this time.
Another world is possible…
This new weekly column, Another World, will examine our shared future in the 21st-century. I’ll aim to share new perspectives and fresh thinking on the the big challenges we face as we look out to that horizon: think big tech and democracy, AI and existential risk, climate change, new genetic technologies, autonomous weapons, growing inequality, the rise of populism and more.
We inhabitants of the early years of this century find ourselves in a strange place. We know that in so many ways radical change is needed. At the same time it can feel impossible to imagine things being any different. This column is motivated by a single idea: that another world is possible if we can summon the ingenuity needed to see it, and the fortitude needed to make it real.
David Mattin is Global Head of Trends & Insights at TrendWatching. He sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Consumption.